What is a muscle spasm, exactly?
That sudden involuntary contraction is actually a protective mechanism started by your neurological system, says Meyers. Usually, small muscle cells share the responsibility for movement. But when your small muscles are overstimulated and larger muscle groups step in to help, your small muscles can't enter the relaxation phase properly. When that happens, a debilitating surge of ouch occurs across the muscle fiber, resulting in spasms.
But how can you tell the difference between muscle spasms and a pulled muscle? "A pulled muscle is physical damage to the fibers," explains Meyers. "This can be as small as tearing the connecting fibers or as severe as an entire muscle rupture." A spasm, on the other hand, is a muscle stuck in its contraction phase while neurologically trying to relax. To tell the difference, look for bruising. Tenderness in a more localized area with bruising is signs of a pulled or torn muscle.
What causes a muscle spasm?
Overexertion, stretching past your limits (or not stretching enough), muscle fatigue or trauma, dehydration, and electrolyte deficiency are among the most common causes of muscle spasms. Good ol' H2O plays a pivotal role in keeping electrolyte levels steady for proper function of the muscle, says Meyers. So make sure you're getting in enough glasses and hydrating with a sports drink, like Gatorade, after a tough workout to replenish the electrolytes you lost. And if you're making multiple coffee runs a day, it may be time to cut back—too much caffeine can spur spasms.
Muscles that are prone to tightness—like the pectorals, lower back, hip flexors, and calves—also tend to have spasms more often, simply because they're commonly exhausted and shortened. "A muscle that spasms frequently happens as a result of overstretching," explains Meyers. "So when a tightness-prone or chronically shortened muscle is stretched beyond its desired range of motion, it protectively spasms to avoid tearing or, in more extreme cases, rupturing."
But what's a girl to do when a charley horse strikes? Eat a tablespoon of yellow mustard, according to Meyers. "Some studies show it is the turmeric, some show that it is the acetic acid," he says. "Either way, we know that it is an effective way to slow or stop an active muscle spasm." If popping a spoonful directly into your mouth isn't your thing, try spreading it on a turkey and cheese roll-up. It's a perfect protein punch with an added painkiller kick!
How can I prevent muscle spasms?
Balance is power when it comes to prevention. "Training each muscle group evenly is important, so biceps and triceps, and hip flexors and extensors should get equal amounts of love," says Meyers. Focus on areas that tend to be tight, and incorporate active stretches like lunges and lateral squats pre-sweat sesh. Then afterward, do static holds to lengthen tissue. "'Contract-relax stretching' is a focused type of stretch that tries to trick the nervous system into stretching further, using breath to guide into a deeper stretch," explains Meyers. For example, when stretching the hamstring, lie on your back and lift your leg to the ceiling. Push your leg down toward the ground to activate the hamstring before slowly bringing your leg back toward your head and breathing into a deep, relaxed elongation of the muscle.
Hydration and a healthy diet, with special attention to macronutrition (proteins, fats, and carbs) and micronutriton (vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium) is also key to keeping muscle spasms in check. Otherwise, "ice painful muscles and heat when tight or achy," advises Meyers. Therapies like active release techniques, myofascial release and electric stimulation can also be extremely helpful. And don't forget to hit the foam roller—we like these exercises. Finally, be sure to give yourself ample time to warm up and cool down, scheduling rest days to prevent overtraining and ensure healing.